No telling how far down the Himalayas Ralph Mendelson might have fallen if Sherpa Mingma Mote hadn't been just a step behind him.
The two men were crossing a snowfield in spring, part of an American group trekking through the world's highest mountain range.
"Hey!" bellowed the startled Mendelson as his feet shot out from under him and he disappeared down a ravine.
Mingma, the sirdar of the expedition--the head Sherpa, Nepalese equivalent of a trail boss--didn't waste a second. Instinctively, he dispatched another Sherpa, Gjaljen, to break the fall of the plummeting Mendelson, who, it turned out, had grabbed hold of a rock about 20 feet down.
If he hadn't, he could have slid hundreds of potentially fatal feet.
In minutes, with a little pushing and pulling by the two Sherpas, the Berkeley, Calif., lawyer was back on the trail, his irrepressible humor intact. "How'd you like my toboggan act, folks?" he asked his stunned wife and the seven other trekkers.
For Mingma, who has been involved with trekking for 25 of his 40 years, the last 15 as a sirdar, it was all in a day's work. As a climber and a hiker in these treacherous mountains, he has seen frostbite, broken bones, altitude-induced sickness--and death.
Sherpas are an ethnic minority that migrated from Tibet--"Sherpa" means "eastern people" in Tibetan--to northeastern Nepal's Khumbu and Solu regions in the 16th Century. Today about 35,000 Sherpas, a Buddhist minority, live in the Hindu kingdom of Nepal. Perhaps half of them work in tourism, the country's second-largest industry after carpets.
In 1953 Sherpa Tenzing Norgay and New Zealander Edmund Hillary were the first to reach the summit of Everest, the Earth's highest mountain at 29,028 feet.
Sherpas have become the backbone of both hiking and climbing, which started to catch fire as tourist attractions in Nepal in the 1960s.
"They're sort of always right there," said Lute Jerstad of Portland, Ore., a mountaineer who in 1963 was a member of the first American team to climb Everest. "They anticipate things. They have a sixth sense. They anticipate what can go wrong and with whom it can go wrong, and they're usually right."
Sirdars are the Sherpa elite. Besides leading tenderfoots over rocky paths at lung-stressing altitudes, they must be planners, organizers, businessmen, diplomats, nurses and linguists.
The traditional sirdar path takes years. Mingma Mote began his apprenticeship as a porter, lugging heavy duffel for trekkers when he was 15. He rose to kitchen boy, then to "sherpa"--the job title for mid-level camp assistants of varied ethnic backgrounds--assistant cook, cook and, finally, sirdar.
Mingma's abilities have solidified his reputation in Katmandu's trekking community. Nepal's gateway capital now has perhaps 150 trekking companies. Some, like the one Mingma works for, are well established. Others, Jerstad said, are shoestring operations run by money-grubbers trying to cash in on the expanding demand.
Mingma is "a great guy, very trustworthy, very honest," said Jerstad, a pioneer in the adventure-travel industry. "Most Sherpas are."
Because of his skills, Mingma has been chosen to lead some famous vacationers up and down northern Nepal's demanding slopes, including Britain's Prince Charles and former World Bank President Robert S. McNamara.
As a climbing Sherpa who is undaunted by Nepal's 26,000-foot peaks, Mingma has climbed 26,810-foot Dhaulagiri. He has reached nearly 26,000 feet on an expedition to Everest.
He laughs as he recalls what his wife told him last year when he had a chance to climb Everest: "You climb Everest, you take the kids."
Although he is not going to the top, this October Mingma will return to Everest's base camp as sirdar for a trek commemorating the 30th anniversary of the first U.S. ascent. Trekkers will include Jerstad and his 1963 climbing partner, geographer Barry Bishop, a National Geographic Society vice president.
Since becoming a sirdar, Mingma has yet to lose a customer, but he has had some close calls. He remembers many trekkers who have been carried down mountains in makeshift baskets or evacuated to Katmandu by helicopter.
Mingma's clients have included preschoolers and septuagenarians. He prefers adults. "Old people go slowly. Young people like to pass," he said.
Some years Mingma leads five or six treks; this year, only two. During the spring and summer monsoon season he has been at home in Namche Bazar, the Sherpa capital of the heavily traveled Everest area, working on the lodge that he and his wife operate for tourists.
In one of the world's poorest countries, where the average annual income is about $170, trekking Sherpas, especially sirdars, are relatively wealthy. One of Mingma's daughters is being trained as a nurse, an unattainable ambition a generation ago.
Many Sherpa families are moving to Katmandu, where they are increasingly exposed to Western ways and lured away from ancient traditions.
"Certainly some of their conventional values have been lost," said Jerstad, "but that may not always be bad."
The money Sherpas earn through trekking generally returns to their mountain villages. "Compared with the '50s and '60s, people are eating well, they don't have goiter problems, they have education and medical care," Jerstad said. "The young men don't have to tend yaks anymore."